Look to the past to look to the future
Based on Ezra 1
The Friday before last, while waiting for a train in Paekakariki, I read a text message from an old friend that simply said, “This day in history……….”
I did not understand it. We had both been keen rugby followers back in the day, so my first thought was, maybe he was reminding me, a Taranaki supporter, it was the anniversary of Taranaki winning the Ranfurly Shield off Auckland in 1996. (To be honest, I had forgotten the exact date, and it had actually been about a fortnight earlier.) It was only when I sat down on the train and started reading the news on my phone when I learned the Queen had died.
Whatever your view on royalty, or what – if any – place the monarchy has in Aotearoa New Zealand in the 21st Century, might be, it would be difficult to not have some admiration for the remarkable person the late Queen had been, the selfless service she had given, and how this was grounded in her strong personal faith.
Of course, we all knew this day was coming. She was 96, she had noticeably slowed down, and her health had been failing rapidly in recent days. But that didn’t lessen the impact of her demise.
All four of my grandparents had lived through the reigns of six monarchs, so they had each experienced five successions. But for those of us who are younger than seventy-something, the Queen was the only monarch we had ever known. So having a Queen or King die and be replaced is something we had never lived through. We knew there were detailed succession plans, like Operation London Bridge and Operation Unicorn. But the rites of succession had not taken place for 70 years, and how they would pan out was something of a mystery.
I watched some of it on television last Saturday night. I saw the new King and some gathered Privy Councillors authorising the continued use of various great seals, presumably shortly after he was formally proclaimed King, at St James’ Palace, and then I watched the proclamation being read from the Royal Exchange.
It suddenly occurred to me that while there would be people who would remember the previous succession, it was almost certain that nobody who was actually participating in these rituals would have done so the previous time. This would have been all new for them, like it was for most of us. And I was reminded of the reading we heard this evening from the Book of Ezra.
This reading describes the end of the time of captivity of Judeans in Babylon. Quite coincidentally, the Babylonian captivity is said to have lasted for 70 years; the same time the late Queen reigned for.
While the historicity of some events described in the Hebrew scriptures can be questioned, there can be no doubt that the Babylonian captivity happened. There are records outside the Hebrew scriptures and tangible archaeological evidence.
I expect most of you will be familiar with the story of how the United Kingdom of Israel had split into two kingdoms. The northern Kingdom, which had retained the name Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians. There would not be a country called Israel again for more than two and half thousand years. Then the southern Kingdom, Judah, fell to the Babylonians, who destroyed the temple and much of Jerusalem and carried most of the people into captivity until they were liberated by King Cyrus of Persia and, as was described in our reading, they were permitted to return to what was the Yehud, a province of the First Persian Empire.
But in many ways, they returned a different people. Israelite and Judean society had previously been organised by tribe; now it revolved around individual whanau. Some classes of society, like the scribes, had become more significant. And some aspects of Babylonian culture had rubbed off on them. While the later stages of composing, editing, and redacting the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, which would come to play a crucial role in Jewish life, took place in the years immediately following the return from captivity, there is strong evidence of Babylonian cultural influence on the text, such as the Great Flood stories in the Book of Genesis, which have unmistakable parallels with the Babylonian epic poem the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Judeans, who had been exiled from their spiritual home, had now returned. What would they do next?
To look to their future, they had to look to their past.
But to look to the past does not mean to go back there; as author L.P. Hartley noted, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently.”
To look to the past is to learn from it. The returning Judeans had to the look back to the former days of the Jerusalem and the first temple as they sought to re-stablish themselves after 70-year absence, just like the United Kingdom and Commonwealth had look back to rites of succession that had not been carried out for 70 years.
And I believe that as followers of Jesus the Christ, we too need to look to the past to rediscover exactly who we are called to be.
Jesus gave us two simple commandments: to love God, and to love others. In the Older Testament, these two commandments are in completely separate books. It took Jesus to bring them together and show that it is through loving others that we can demonstrate we love God.
It disturbs me that many of today’s supposed expressions of Christianity have grossly distorted its original message.
When I see churches that have replaced the love that is central to being a follower of Jesus with a hatred of people who have been created differently from them, I despair. When I see the scriptures being misused to subjugate women, promote extreme nationalism, or try to justify slavery, exploitation, or oppression, I get angry. And when I see high profile church leaders twisting the message to con poor people into giving them money, I want to bang my head against the wall.
And it really upsets me when people from outside the Church see such behaviour get put off Christianity altogether. I have even met parents who will not allow their children to participate in church activities, because they fear they might be sexually abused. That is very sad. But can we honestly blame them?
But while it is easy to be sad, angry, or both at how some denominations of the Church appear to have replaced the core teachings of the gospels with short-sighted toxic fundamentalism, I have a better suggestion.
And that is to look to the past and reclaim what to really means to be a follower of Jesus, just like the Judeans had to look to their past when they re-established themselves after being freed from captivity, and like the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to look to their past to ensure a smooth succession. And then we will show that we are the authentic faces of those who follow Jesus. Not the hateful money-grubbing hypocrites who seem to be the face of religion in the media.
In this regard, I would like to leave you with one of my favourite quotes, which is from Madeleine L'Engle: “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
9 September 2022